HomeWorldBiden Administration Says Saudi Crown Prince Has Immunity in Khashoggi Trial

Biden Administration Says Saudi Crown Prince Has Immunity in Khashoggi Trial

The Biden administration told a US court that Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s status as sitting head of government protects him from a civil lawsuit brought by the fiancée of murdered Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi.

The decision comes in the midst of a political dispute between the US and the Saudis over oil production that brought the nearly 90-year diplomatic relationship to a breaking point this year. The Saudis enraged the White House engineering a major production cut with the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries and its Russian-led allies last month, but US officials look forward to the group’s next oil production decision in early December with hopes of an increase.

Prince Mohammed has long longed for the immunity designation in the US, according to people close to him, believing he owed it as the de facto leader, with his father, King Salman, delegating most of the duties. With no assurance of immunity from prosecution or lawsuits, the people said the prince had avoided travel to the US and has not been there since 2018.

Mr Khashoggi, a former royal insider who criticized Prince Mohammed’s policies in Washington Post columns, was murdered and his body dismembered by Saudi agents in 2018 while visiting the kingdom’s consulate in Istanbul, where he was looking for papers needed to marry Hatice Cengiz, a Turkish resident.

The US intelligence services concluded that the crown prince probably ordered the assassination. The Saudi government initially denied involvement in Mr Khashoggi’s death, but later acknowledged that government officials committed the assassination and said the crown prince was not personally involved.

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In a filing on Thursday, the State Department said “common law principles of immunity” informed its decision on Prince Mohammed’s status, but “does not reflect any judgment on the underlying conduct at issue in the trial.” ” The de facto Saudi leader was deputy prime minister at the time of the assassination, but in September he was appointed prime minister, a title traditionally held by the king, currently his father, King Salman.

Hatice Cengiz, fiancee of slain Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi, after attending a trial in Istanbul in April.


Photo:

MURAD SEZER/REUTERS

The court is expected to hear the matter at a hearing next month. If Ms Cengiz’s lawsuit is dismissed, Saudi Arabia could sidestep an episode that drove a wedge between Prince Mohammed and Western allies, particularly the US.

The decision removes the ability to use the US legal system to hold Prince Mohammed responsible for the murder of Mr Khashoggi, an act that has caused friction in relations with President Biden. While prosecution in the US for Mr Khashoggi’s death had always been unlikely, the prince wanted to clear any doubt, people close to the prince said.

While the then president

Donald Trump

expressed support for the prince after the assassination, President Biden has taken a harder line, vowing during his 2020 presidential campaign to treat Saudi Arabia as a pariah. Barely a month after taking office, he released the long-delayed intelligence report on the prince’s role in the assassination and sanctioned a number of Saudi security officials without punishing the prince himself.

Biden refused to speak to Prince Mohammed during his first year in office. But in July, after a period of sustained high oil prices, the president traveled to Saudi Arabia. There, he fist-punched the young ruler ahead of an almost three-hour meeting in which he said he had accomplished “an important cause” and confronted the prince about the murder.

Prince Mohammed has since steadily regained his international prestige, after staying away from the US or Europe since 2018 and skipping international summits last year.

Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman greets President Biden in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, in July.


Photo:

Bandar Aljaloud/Associated Press

Supporters of Mr Khashoggi criticized the trial as treason and Ms Cengiz said the government’s decision was unexpected.

“We thought maybe there would be light for justice from #USA,” she tweeted. “Jamal passed away again today.”

The case was brought in 2020 alongside Democracy for the Arab World Now, a US-based non-profit organization set up to promote human rights and the rule of law that Mr. Khashoggi founded while living in self-exile in Washington.

“It is beyond ironic that President Biden has single-handedly ensured that MBS can escape responsibility when it was President Biden who promised the American people that he would do everything in his power to hold him accountable,” said Sarah Leah Whitson , executive director of the nonprofit organization. initials. “Not even the Trump administration has done this.”

A Saudi court has definitively convicted eight low-ranking officials for their role in the murder, with their death sentences revoked after Mr Khashoggi’s eldest son pardoned them. The prosecution declared the case closed.

Write to Stephen Kalin at stephen.kalin@wsj.com and Summer Said at summer.said@wsj.com

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